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Golden Era

Think of a Hollywood movie and chances are the image in your head was created by Bill Gold. The American graphic designer is responsible for some of the greatest movie posters of all time: Casablanca, Bullitt, The Sting, A Clockwork Orange, and The Exorcist.

A graduate of New York’s Pratt Institute, Bill Gold got his first break working as an apprentice at Warner Bros. and went on to work with top directors such as Clint Eastwood, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Elia Kazan and Ridley Scott to create utterly compelling images that would inspire the public to go and see their movies. He forged a particularly strong working relationship with Eastwood and designed posters for every one of his movies from Dirty Harry in 1971 to Mystic River in 2003.

“Bill has a firm belief in the power of great stories,” says Eastwood, of his devotion to Gold’s work. “Whether the story was about a cop trying to do what he believes is right, or a retired gunman struggling with his conscience, or three men trying to make sense of their damaged lives, Bill always matched the human emotions of these pictures with unforgettable images.”

You’ve just published a book of your life’s work. What was the inspiration behind that?

My wife and I went to this restaurant and they sat us at a table in front of a poster that was on the wall, a tremendous blow-up of a poster for Camelot, and I of course had designed it. We called the owner over and discussed it with him, and my wife said, “My husband designed this poster and we’re very amazed that you’ve sat us in front of it.” And the owner said, “He didn’t design it, Bob Peak designed it.”

Well, Bob Peak was the illustrator who did the composition. I designed the whole thing with Peak in mind. I even asked him to use a Gustaf Klimt design like ‘The Kiss’, or something that everybody knows, in his design or painting. He agreed and this is what we came up with. We worked together on composition, and where we put the actors and actresses, and it became very successful and won all sorts of prizes.

So that’s why many people won’t have heard of you; when illustrators such as Bob Peak sign the poster, everyone assumes they also designed it. When in fact you commissioned it, you did the layout and you chose the typography. So it’s a “Bill Gold poster, illustrated by Bob Peak”. Obviously, this creates confusion.

That’s why I have not been particularly recognised, because I don’t put my name on anything. The movie companies don’t approve of the designer putting his name on their poster. The illustrator can sneak it in, so long as he doesn’t make it obvious.

In 1942, you were fresh out of art school—the Pratt Institute in New York — you were working for Warner Bros., and one of the very first projects you did was the poster for the movie, Casablanca. How did that happen?

Well, that was the first assignment they gave me. They just said, “Why don’t you start doing some concept ideas for Casablanca?” I read parts of the script and I looked at all the stills from the movie. As I started to get familiar with it, I saw that all the characters in the film were rather important as acting pieces and as dramatic pieces that the audience would recognise.

So I loaded the background with a two-colour representation of all these characters montaged together, then I stood Humphrey Bogart at the very foreground and right behind him—noticeably behind him so it didn’t look like a composite clinch, so it would look like she was looking on—I put Ingrid Bergman.

When I presented it to the clients at Warner Brothers, they said; “We love it, it’s beautiful... but can’t we have more action? How can we make it appeal to an audience who likes excitement?”

So I took a week and I came back and all I could think of was to put a gun in Bogart’s hand. He didn’t even have a gun in the film, once at the end I think, but not really, it’s not something you notice. He’s a cafe owner, not a gangster, but that’s how they accepted it and they now had a way of launching Bogart as a gunslinger. It was strange how that happened, but from then on he always appeared with a gun.

Another of your most admired creations is the sexy poster for the 1956 film Baby Doll. There’s Caroll Baker lying on a couch that’s like a sort of baby’s cot with sides to it. Coke bottle on the floor, bare lightbulb above her, fan magazine beside her. She’s a sort of child bride, very provocative.

Exactly, that was a specially taken photo. The director, Elia Kazan, came to the movie set when we had it all set up and he posed her exactly as she appeared in the film, and we stood there together and shot the pictures.

I put the lightbulb in later. It’s such a strong image that when you think of the film, you immediately conjure it up.

Like many of your posters, The Exorcist, for example—that’s an amazing image considering you were working under incredible constraints...

I couldn’t include anything of the little girl, couldn’t mention her fit, or in any way distort her image. No crucifixes, no religious symbols, they wanted to keep all of that out of the marketing. When they saw it for the first time, they said, “That’s it! Don’t do another thing.”

It was unusual for me because normally I’d create an image that would hint more at the story. This was just an introduction. Yes, the exorcist was arriving and they knew that something was going to be terrifying inside that house.

With your posters, you focus on the stories rather than just portraits of the stars, like many modern movie posters.

Do you know why? Because the Warner Brothers, the Paramounts, the people who make and pay for the movies, they want you to show the actors, because they cost a lot of money. And if they spent all this money on actors, they want to know why you aren’t showing them. The public buys those actors.

Years ago, when MGM used to make all those musicals, they would always present the photo of those actors very importantly. As a result, that became a tradition in movie posters... which I never honoured. The story is the most important thing.

I made a very minimalistic poster for Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood where you could scarcely see his face. Clint wanted to use that for the whole campaign, but when the film came out it had Gene Hackman, Richard Harris and Morgan Freeman in it. Warner Brothers said, “We’ve invested a lot of capital in those stars, I think you should show them.” I even said to Clint at the beginning, “I’m a little bit worried about the fact that you’re not recognisable in this piece,” and he said, “I don’t care if they don’t know who it is; forget it.” He didn’t give a damn.

You also did Bird, the Charlie Parker film for Clint Eastwood. Again the restrictions you faced with this campaign seemed to feed your creativity, in that the film is about a drug addict, but you weren’t allowed to mention drugs, and it was about a jazz performer, but you needed to appeal to more than jazz fans.

They told me when I turned up that they didn’t want to sell this as a jazz movie because jazz fans will find out that it’s about Charlie Parker and they’ll automatically go. So how do we market it so that it’s a story about a man and his life? His marriage, his wife, his children, his life. I mean, he kills himself with dope, so we want to show a more personal movie. Not just a drug addict and not just a musician. So we started to work on the man-and-wife story, and it just wasn’t interesting and didn’t make you want to go to see it. It just looked like one of these Saturday night jobs.

So I decided to do a bunch [of posters], just to show [the studio] what they were asking for, and I decided to do an image of the actor, Forrest Whittaker, playing

the saxophone. You hardly see him, just a little bit of side lighting on him so that you recognise the actor. The sax is there and there are two star bursts coming out of his saxophone, and I had a dove flying out of the black background symbolising his death and, of course, his name. When they saw that, they went nuts.

Mainly for legal reasons, there’s so much writing on movie posters nowadays. The billing goes on forever. How do you feel about that?

Clint agrees with me on this: he would like to see no billing at all. Even before he was well known, when we did Dirty Harry nobody at all knew who he was. I always hated the billings. When I showed a campaign to a client, I never put the billings in, I showed them the artwork because that’s all I was interested in—will the artwork and the typography sell [the concept] to them?

What about Stanley Kubrick? You did two films with him, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon. I gather with the latter that he took an extremely close interest in the design of the poster...

Yes, he helped me with every single brush stroke. He called New York from London every day. We had a messenger going from my office to his house who flew over every single day. There was no fax for us then, no computers to send the prints over with. So he came and delivered a print to me, I would retouch it or design with it and we’d send back a copy for Stanley Kubrick to look at.

I went and stayed with him, at his house, for two weeks during the shoot just to work on the poster.

He thinks that there’s nobody else that can do it but him. It’s not just ego, though, it’s complete knowledge of how to approach a problem. I even developed a special alphabet for the Barry Lyndon film, Stanley asked for that. That font is still in the trade now, it’s known as Timepiece.

Your last campaign was for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River in 2003. It’s a wonderful poster, full of menace. The characters stand against the water and everybody thinks it’s a photograph, but that’s not the case, is it?

No, it’s a drawing. We designed [the poster] as a reflected image in the water. As if they’re standing on the shore and the light is behind them so their image is reflected dark in the water and, of course, we embellished the ripple and the waves going through their bodies. So you’re convinced that it’s a real image, but it’s not. The magic of drawing is that you can make the actors the same height, when one was actually very tall and one was very short. We wanted it to look like three guys who really belonged together. Clint loved it. He didn’t want anything else shown in the campaign.

You retired in 2003, but a lot of the posters Clint Eastwood has used since then resemble your work. Look at Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby; they could be Bill Gold pieces. Clearly he loves that style of black-and-white and minimalist photography. But if you look in the movie history books and you search under ‘Gold’, what you don’t get is ‘Bill Gold’.

Well, I never really promoted myself, not like Saul Bass who came before me; he promoted himself on every job he did. But I didn’t care about that, all I cared about was my work and I wasn’t looking for personal publicity because it wasn’t something that I wanted, mostly because I was shy. Now, though, I’m glad that I was convinced to do a book.

Penthouse Australia

11 Jun, 2011

Matt Weiner